Wow, great news. We’ve been contacted by Channel 4 with the offer of some great interviews, recipes, photo’s and more for The Great British Food Fight. We said yes! We’ll be posting all this extra content over the week or so.
All the ITs Food family enjoy The Great British Food Fight. Food is such a big part of all our lives, we all need it. Shouldn’t we all examine what we’re putting into our bodies and wonder where it comes from? Food is something to be enjoyed and savoured, not something to ram down our throats in 5 minutes just to get it out of the way.
Anyway, before this post turns into a food rant here is the first bonus content from Channel 4. An exclusive interview with super-chef and one of my personal food-gods, Heston Blumenthal (more ITs Food Heston stories here). In the interview he discusses his involvement in The Great British Food Fight and the challenges he faced working with Little Chef. Enjoy!
1. What made you join the Great British Food Fight?
I’ve joined Channel 4’s team – Hugh, and Jamie and Gordon – and the thing that I found really exciting with that is that Channel 4 recognises that the four of us are really different. I think it’s great that we’ve each got our own and different approach. I knew how successful the British Food Fight was last year and the campaign trails were all very funny and they had some really diverse cooking programmes. So obviously to become part of that team was fantastic. We don’t get to see each other that often, but all the chefs entered into the spirit of things for the campaign and it was so much fun filming the marketing trail. I’ve seen it so many times and it still makes me laugh.
2. Why did you get involved with Little Chef in particular and what did Little Chef mean for you?
I was approached to do this and on the face of it, it could seem like a bit of a strange match in terms my food ideas and Little Chef. But I’m a seventies kid, I was born in London and grew up in London and Little Chef in the seventies was in its hey day. This was an opportunity to maybe, maybe make a difference to an iconic British brand. What I found fascinating is that the Little Chef brand is really strong and iconic in terms of nostalgia. But that brand is not iconic today, in reality, it’s in the past. So you’ve still got fond memories of people who would have gone there when they were kids but wouldn’t set foot in a Little Chef now. It’s not what it was.
But there’s also the fact that I’m British and I’m proud to be British. I think that considering what’s happened to food in this country recently – we had a real explosion right across Britain, which is fantastic. And I think our roadside restaurant chain does not reflect, one iota, what food in Britain actually is. I went to France, and I went to a service station and most service stations there have the biggest retailer of just about the most expensive chicken in the world. It’s what all three star restaurants have and it’s sold in a service station. Imagine people from France coming over to Britain and thinking, let’s try the restaurant, when going to a service station, they would be absolutely shocked, it’s awful. I would love for a French family to pop over and have nowhere else to go and walk in and say: “Oh, hang on a second?!”. So it’s things like having a rotisserie in there. They’ve got chickens going round the spit for chicken and chips with roasting juices. And not only that, but … there are several things that are traditional but also great about British food like The Great British Breakfast using the fantastic produce now available in this country. So I thought we should try and bring some of that into the Little Chef project.
Another reason was that I thought it was ironic that the Michelin Guide, in fact, started as a guide to motorists and the one star, two star, three star was: worth a stop; worth a detour or worth a special journey. And the Michelin Man is a little white fat man on a red background, and Little Chef is a little white fat man on a red background. I thought it was quite unusual and perhaps not coincidental. And the final reason is that the two of my dishes that get referred to all the time and for years now are snail porridge and bacon and egg ice cream – it makes it seem like that’s all I do. And actually it worked in my favour because when we announced this project there was a lot of interest particularly about ‘would there be bacon and egg ice cream?’ and ‘they’re not going to have snail porridge in there are they?’
3. What unexpected challenges did you come across?
Oh yes! It’s the first fly-on-the-wall project I’ve done. And you realise that in order to try and make this a success you have to go through a whole series of slaying dragons. My utter shock, when I walked into the first Little Chef it made me realise the enormity of this task, oh my god. And then when I went into the kitchen… I have never been into a kitchen with no pots and pans! It was unbelievable. Then I realised the reason why they’ve got no pots and pans is because they haven’t got what you’d traditionally call trained chefs in Little Chef. They’re trained Little Chef staff. A pot and a pan need somebody who knows how to use it. You have to have a level of control which is down to the individual and not down to the company. Also, those pots and pans need somebody to wash them up, and they don’t have people to wash up. The people who do the cooking and the serving do the washing up when it’s quiet. And that’s when it dawned on me that I might have bitten off more than I can chew. It’s given me more sleepless nights than just about anything I’ve ever done before.
4. So on that note, were there things you wanted to do with Little Chef or had expected at the beginning, that you weren’t actually able to deliver?
I think the biggest thing was I had a very idealistic, ideological, but naïve idea of what we could do with Little Chef. Obviously, I had my Little Chef team. I realised that the beauty of Little Chef is that they’ve got some loyal staff. And probably my biggest satisfaction was interaction with the staff….you can’t go employing new staff when you’ve got existing staff there anyway. Not only that, Little Chef operate from seven in the morning to ten o’clock at night so that’s 15 hours a day, seven days a week. So if you work out at 35 hour week employ enough people to cook, serve and wash up – and work it out across all 180 Little Chef branches – you’re looking at 3,500 chefs….so you can imagine the whole thing I got excited about, I thought, I can’t do it. So I had to completely rethink my approach.
I had the MD of Little Chef telling me he wants “blue Skies thinking”, wanting my “creativity”…and I had the Little Chef customers saying this was too clever, too complicated and too “poncey” for Little Chef. So I had him saying one thing, the customers saying another. But really to get more people back into Little Chef, without teeing-off the existing customers was delicate. Anything you do is going to annoy some people. The people who really like Little Chef would say don’t change it. However, the reason Little Chef is the way it is now is because it needs changing. Even when we did the trial branch opening, the press had picked up on ox cheeks in red wine sauce and picked up on mussels, and the use of the malt vinegar atomiser with fish and chips to smell like a chip shop. And it went down really well. But there were people who read those articles…other journalists, saying why are you doing this, you should be leaving Little Chef alone. Firstly, those people obviously don’t care about Little Chef, because if they did, they would want to put it back on the map again. And secondly, they did make it sound a little bit like we’d left the old kind of classics untouched or off the menu. But we put a lot of work into the Olympic Breakfast, the bacon butties, the sausage sandwich, the Jubilee pancakes, waffles baked to order, it’s all there.
5. What’s the best thing you and Little Chef have achieved during this project, what are you most proud of?
The response has been fantastic and it kind of shocked me as well. Because I realised what they were saying actually, your new chefs, and your Michelin-starred chefs, what we do is actually still considered elitist. So Little Chef is a restaurant of ‘the people’, across Britain, which enables you to make a difference at grassroots level. At that was why the response was so great.
The most satisfaction and the greatest pleasure I got, was without a doubt, seeing that team change from a group of people who were hesitant, who looked almost grey, uninterested, didn’t like ‘funny food’ – they didn’t care about anything. It was hard, it was really hard, but seeing their eyes light up, seeing the sparkle and excitement grow, and in the end hearing them say, “we never want to go back”. That was absolutely amazing. During the programme for example, when I got stressed and cross with quite a few directors of Little Chef and the thing that spurred me on was thinking about those staff. Thinking how actually, they could then keep the changes and allow change to happen, so almost doing it really for them. That really is the real achievement in the programme, it’s the people you’ve got there. And it’s worth the, almost fisty-cuffs there were, there was definitely some argy bargy during the filming!